Well, I've had a listen to the material I brought with me from the Med and I have to say the stuff is fairly underwhelming. I had two priorities when shopping on the island, buying some local hip-hop and checking out the local genre ghana, and I guess both of those are fulfilled. Still, I was hoping for more from the descriptions I've read that instilled me with a sense of false hope.
On friday I bought the hip-hop CD, in what seems to be the only independent record store on the island. Hooligan is Malta's best-established rapper (probably a bad sign, in hindsight) and puts out fairly tepid hip-hop with dull beats (but fun titles, that's what drew me in I guess). As you might guess the hip-hop scene on Malta is not exactly huge. Two decent picks from a bad bunch below, one with an interesting use of strings and the other one veering towards hip house.
Now Ghana (pronounced aa-na, and like most folk music genres meaning "song") is a different matter entirely. Because it's actually fairly interesting, it's just that the descriptions offered veer quite a distance from the truth. I guess the romatic notion that the arabs would have left a still-existing musical tradition behind when they left over a milennium ago is fairly ridiculous when you think about it, but it's very frequently repeated, even in the supposedly scholarly article above.
I bought two CDs from a pirate stall at the big Valetta sunday market. Piracy is very frequent in Malta as the copyright laws were only recently instated and are very badly enforced. One of the CDs I bought at the behest of the stallkeeper, and one because I saw an old man buying the same one before me; that way I felt insured against both old men with bad taste and tourist traps.
Turns out the stallkeeper's CD was miles better (the other one was rather poppy). Here are the supposedly two initial tracks on the CD, but to my ears they blend into just one, 30 minutes long.
There's no doubt in my mind that this material is fairly deeply entrenched in the European tradition. The guitar and the melodic base are obviously tonal, complete with some sort of cadences that are apparent even in the song. Substract all the idiosyncratic preformance elements and it's not terribly distant from Neapolitan song or something else fairly classical in nature.
The length, the singing style and the wavering tonality in the voice are also plentifully represented in other ur-european traditions - serbian guslari for instance contains similar heterophonic arrangements, microtonality and wavering rhythm. Come to think of it, ghana may actually be fairly exceptional in southern european music because it's so Non-arabic in nature - Portugese, Spanish and Greek folk music all contain a much stronger eastern influence!
So while the Arabic invasion is felt in the architecture, language and probably in the culture, it's not present in the music as much. It's such an appealing idea that it might be there, but alas it's not. Of course, "arabic" has come to mean something else according to the research paper above - the pre-modern, what is not recognisably a modern invention. I guess that's why the myth persists.